ST. ALBANS CITY — The St. Albans City Council voted unanimously Monday night to help pay for an engineering analysis of the former John Smith home on Maiden Lane.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont has offered to pay for half of the analysis if the city would pay for the other half. The total cost is estimated at $1,000. If the cost were greater than that, the trust would pay the additional cost, keeping the city’s contribution at $500.
The analysis will not take place without the agreement of the Connor Group, which owns the building and has been granted a permit from the Development Review Board to demolish the building. That permit has been appealed to the Vermont Environmental Court by neighboring landowners.
Under city ordinances, the council has three months to find an alternative to demolition if it wishes to do so.
Members of the newly formed group Save the Smith House attended the meeting. There were approximately 20 to 25 people in the audience for the Smith House discussion.
Katie Collin, who owns the downtown shop What a Yarn, spoke on behalf of the group, stating, “We believe our representatives in city hall should do all in their power to preserve the Smith House.”
The 1820 house was the childhood home of Vermont Gov. J. Gregory Smith. His father, John Smith, was a congressman and one of the men responsible for bringing the railroad to St. Albans City. The family donated the Taylor Park fountain as well as the lands and funds for the St. Albans Free Library. Collin called the family’s contribution to St. Albans and the State of Vermont “immeasurable.”
The Smith House was purchased by the Owl Club in 1908 and remained the home of the club until it closed in 2008. The club made several additions to the building. No one is seeking to preserve the additions.
Preservation Trust Director Paul Bruhn has recommended hiring Robert Neeld, the president of Engineering Ventures in Burlington, to do the structural analysis because of their experience and expertise with historic structures.
The firm’s projects include: the Middlebury Theater; the historic garden structures and sea wall at Shelburne Farms; two mill buildings in Claremont, N.H., which required foundation repairs and the replacement of water damaged timbers; and the Vermont Granite Museum, for which the firm received an American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Excellence in Engineering award. The firm also received an ACEC grand prize for its work on the Opera House of Enosburg Falls.
Gerald Muehle, who was also seeking a seat on the city Planning Commission, told the council he considered purchasing the former Owl Club building two years ago, but there was water coming through the ceiling and over a foot of water in the basement.
Asked about the condition of the original Smith House, Meuhle replied that water had been leaking around the chimneys and some of the bricks were crumbling.
St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud advised the council to approve the funds. “It’s quite obvious that a big bone of contention was the lack of an independent assessment,” said Cloud. The Connor Group had hired the same engineering firm designing the new building to do an assessment of the condition of the Owl Club building. Critics argued the firm had a conflict of interest, lacked specific expertise in historic preservation, and had not separated the Smith House from the rest of the Owl Club in their analysis.
The Connor Group did not supply the city with an estimate of the cost of renovation as required by city ordinance. This analysis would provide that estimate.
An independent analysis would facilitate a timely resolution of the issue, in Cloud’s view.
“We’ve got nothing to lose. The Connors have got nothing to lose,” said Cloud.
In other business, council members interviewed four candidates for two open seats on the planning commission. They appointed city business owner and resident Tom Murphy and realtor Stacie Callan, a St. Albans Town resident.
The council also held a public hearing on a grant application to the Agency of Transportation for a bike and pedestrian grant to extend the streetscape improvements on Main Street north to Hoyt Street. The streetscape work currently ends at Hudson Street. The extension would be on both sides of the street, including the area in front of a new Ace Hardware building to be built later this year.
The city’s Director of Finance Peg Strait reported that the city should end the year with modest surpluses in the general fund, water and wastewater budgets. Although the fiscal year ended on June 30, some bills and revenues are still arriving.